Washing Feet: Now All the People of God Are Invited

I woke up this morning to the very welcome news that Pope Francis has revised the Holy Thursday rite to include women as well as men in the ritual of the washing of the feet. Or, as the Vatican Radio headline so wonderfully puts it: "Pope changes Holy Thursday decree to include all people of God."

Until now the rubrics for the Mandatum -- the foot-washing ritual, which takes place after the Gospel and homily at Mass on Holy Thursday -- specified that the people whose feet were washed were "men." And that's not the English "men" that sometimes (in a totally not sexist way, as many a mansplainer will tell you) is supposed to mean "men and women"; it's the Latin "men" that means "males." Many bishops, priests, and parishes had been including women anyway, not least, as you are probably well aware, Pope Francis himself. But those who preferred an all-male lineup had the letter of the law on their side. No more: the revised text approved by Francis refers not to the "men" whose feet are washed, but to “those chosen from among the People of God.”

I've seen three basic reactions to this news in my travels online. The first is my own: Hooray! It's about time! The second: Wait, you mean washing women's feet was against the rules before? And the third, well:

Some people are displeased.

I've long argued that if you really believe that the church's refusal to consider ordaining women to the priesthood is a matter of being bound by Tradition, and definitely not just long-entrenched sexism, then you should welcome any opportunity to involve women in the life of the church. An announcement like this, like the inclusion of both females and males as altar servers, should be good news to everyone. But it doesn't always seem to work that way, in part because those most committed to preserving and defending the all-male priesthood are often those least likely to celebrate any elevation of the "people of God." If you see altar servers mainly as priests-in-training and foot-washing mainly as part of Jesus's Last Supper ordination ceremony, then those things should be limited to men, too, to protect the privileges of the priesthood. But the Mandatum isn't only or chiefly about ordination; it's about Jesus's commandment to his disciples -- and thus to all of us -- to love one another as He loved us, and to express that love in humble service. It makes no more sense to exclude women from that rite than it does to exclude them from the Communion line (when Jesus commanded, "Do this in memory of me," did he mean only men?). Pope Francis's letter explains that he changed the rite “so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus’ gesture in the Last Supper, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity” ("la sua carità senza confini").

So, yes, it's overdue. And yes, it is a big deal, at least if you're a practicing Catholic who thinks how we celebrate the Eucharist is important.

"But it's still just a suggestion, right?" is another reaction I've seen in a few places. "The priest doesn't HAVE to include women."

One big difference I would note between this and the announcement that females are permitted to be altar servers is that this time there is (so far as I know) no hand-wringing letter from the CDW about how confusing it could be to the faithful, about how they will need it to be carefully explained to them if their bishop or pastor should choose to include women. (Instead, there is this from the pope: " I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen." An opportunity for catechesis!) And there is no language carefully preserving the priest's right to go on excluding women if he so chooses. Sure, it's technically still possible, as far as I can tell, for a priest to decide that in the case of his community a group of men alone is most appropriate. He could also now opt for only women, at least as I read the rubrics. But let's remember that the liturgy is the work of the people of God -- to use a phrase Pope Francis is bringing back into vogue -- and not a performance put on by the priest for an audience of laypeople. Your parish priest could decide to ignore Francis's desire that the Holy Thursday Mass more fully express the limitless love of Christ. But why would he? And why, now that the stickler-for-the-rules excuse has been removed, would the people of God put up with it?

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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